This Christmas, many of the homeless won't be visiting their families. For more than a decade now, Lucio Abbruzzese has been leading the Toronto Christmas Street Patrol on Dec. 23 with hopes that his team of participants will be their family and friends for the night.
"We almost feel like the three wise men – but in our case maybe it's 20 or 30 wise men - walking the streets giving gifts to those who are less fortunate," said Abbruzzese, a teacher at Toronto's Michael Power/St. Joseph Catholic Secondary School.
For about two hours, the group walks from shelter to shelter in the downtown core carrying small gifts such as toiletries, socks, gloves, hats, baked goods and fruit. The group sometimes sings Christmas carols as they walk through the streets – especially if it's a nice evening, said Abbruzzese.
"We knock on the (shelter) doors and we ask that they make an announcement that Street Patrol is outside and we have gifts for the homeless," he said. "The homeless will come out and we meet them on the sidewalks."
But it's not just about the gifts, said Abbruzzese.
"Talking with the homeless is the other very important part of our ministry. It doesn't have to be deep, philosophical conversations . . . just keeping it light and making them feel like they're human beings.
"We do say 'Merry Christmas,' so if someone does want to talk about God or Jesus, we're more than up for that."
Christmas Street Patrol started 12 years ago, when one of Abbruzzese's student leaders from the Summer Street Patrol, Gary Bertao, suggested it. Now a teacher himself, Bertao is pleased the Christmas patrol has continued all these years.
"My experiences with Lucio and Street Patrol have shown me the importance of teaching social justice values to my students," said Bertao.
For Stefanie Romano, her journey with the Christmas Street Patrol extends back to its first year.
"I have always felt, from the very first moment, that lives were changing because of this mission," she said.
"I never really saw it as charity - because Street Patrol's mission isn't to solve homelessness - but I saw it as an opportunity to be charitable to those who are ignored and exiled in the streets because of unfortunate circumstances."
She calls the patrol a gift to the city. "It's an offering of food and friendship to strengthen the arc of community in the streets of Toronto."
For participant Megan Freitas, Christmas Street Patrol serves as a constant reminder to count her blessings.
"It's difficult being outside even if it's just for a few hours during winter," said Freitas, a chartered accountant. "I can only imagine what it must be like for the homeless who spend their days and nights on the streets."
On why she takes part in the patrol, Freitas cites a homily by Pope emeritus Benedict XVI who said, "Joy is the true gift of Christmas, not expensive presents that demand time and money. We can transmit this joy simply: with a smile, with a kind gesture, with some small help, with forgiveness."
"Street Patrol is a way for us to get into the season of Christmas by doing something small that hopefully brings some joy to another person's life."